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Resurrecting Lemuria

Kanakalatha Mukund

The book captures the notion of Lemuria as a lost continent, which has taken hold in the minds of disparate groups of people with different world views

FABULOUS GEOGRAPHIES, CATASTROPHIC HISTORIES - The Lost Land of Lemuria: Sumathi Ramaswamy; Permanent Black, D-28, Oxford Apartments, II, IP Extension, Delhi-110092. Rs. 695.

I remember meeting Sumathi Ramaswamy in the Tamil Nadu Archives several years ago, when she mentioned that she was doing research on the imaginary lost continent of Lemuria. I was evidently one of the typical middle-class product of English medium education who, in the author's word, would have never heard of Lemuria or the lost land of the Tamils.

For those like me, let me start with a brief introduction. Unlike other imaginary lost civilisations, Lemuria was a product of Victorian science. Based on the distribution of animal life in various parts of the world, it was concluded that at some point of time there had existed a continent stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, (named Lemuria) of which a large part became submerged in the ocean in pre-historical time. The German biologist Ernst Haeckel in the 1870s even suggested that this continent was the "cradle of the human race."

Notion of Lemuria

Though the accepted theory now is of continental drift, the notion of Lemuria as a lost continent has taken hold in the minds of disparate groups of people with different world views. It is this process that Sumathi Ramaswamy captures in the book. As she notes, "I consider Lemuria as a place-world that is the product of varied labours of loss underwritten by place-making imaginations that I characterise as fabulous and catastrophic. The history I document is necessarily off-modern, eccentric and oppositional." I quote this because it not only clearly states how the author herself views her subject but also to underscore the abstract style in which she writes.

Outside the scientific world Lemuria has had a remarkable resurrection between two groups of people. The first belonged to the world of occultism, like Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, who claimed to have learnt the truth about Lemuria through clairvoyant revelations.

The major part of the book however deals with the other group, which appropriated Lemuria, the Tamil ideologues in Tamil Nadu. To them, Lemuria was the fabled lost land of Tamil culture mentioned in the Sangam literary works and commentaries, which talk of two earlier Sangams (or literary academies), but the country and the literature were destroyed due to a catastrophic flood.

Lost land of Tamils

With the legitimacy conferred by the scientific notion of a lost continent, these scholars recreated Lemuria as a land of highly advanced culture. Thus they established the antiquity of Tamil in India, the fact that the Dravidians were the original inhabitants of India, both important articles of faith for a society smarting under the relegation to second class status because of the domination of Sanskrit under colonial rule.

Maps were drawn of the imagined Tamil country lost to the sea (the "fabulous geographies" and the "catastrophic history" of the title). A dominant motif in their mourning for the lost land, culture and literature ("labours of loss", in the author's words) was the capricious and cruel nature of the sea which had swallowed up this glorious past (kadalkol).

Though professional historians (whom Ramaswamy calls "historicists") who set more rigorous standards of scholarship and proof dismissed the idea as frivolous, the devotees of Tamil have been able to ratify their version of history and geography in official consciousness and have this incorporated into textbooks, which are used even now in Tamil medium schools. (Doctored history is thus not the prerogative only of the Hindu Right.)

Good history

Though I am in agreement with the author's conclusions on the obsessive preoccupation of the devotees of Tamil in glorifying their language and history, I would still like to take issue with her on some points. For instance, she criticises the historians who, in spite of dismissing the notion of Lemuria, agreed that the historical memory of lost literature and land contained in the early poems must be reassessed.

But taking folk memory seriously is surely only good history. I also find it difficult to agree with the author's argument that teaching school children that Lemuria actually existed as a fact is deliberately aimed only at children from lower income sections, " ... a subaltern world that yearns for respectability and empowerment." I hardly think that for the poor the notion of lost glories provides any material comfort. A good education and improved job opportunities are probably more important in their minds. Finally, if this history is "eccentric" (in the words of the author) does the "Centre" necessarily produce more authentic history?

To disagree on such details is not to diminish the contribution of the book. The subject is meticulously researched and fluently presented. The fact that it can generate debate in itself testifies to Sumathi Ramaswamy's scholarship.

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